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‘Back to the wall’: Veterans of Vietnam, Iraq recall horrors of combat, lingering effects when they came home

PTSD (US Army/Released)

Elmer “Snubby” Burket walked past dozens of empty seats in the Richland Township Eat’n Park, as he led the way toward an isolated corner booth that was located a few feet away from an exit. He turned around, motioned and asked if the selection was OK.

It was.

Matthew Paterson sent a text message: “I am in the back with a green jacket.”

He had already picked out a table for a meeting inside Jim & Jimmies lounge – in a corner, a few feet away from an exit.

The selections of those seats for individual interviews with The Tribune-Democrat were not causal coincidences.

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The spots were chosen because both provided protection from anybody coming up behind the men unnoticed and allowed them to keep an eye on their surroundings, while also being close to a door in case a fast getaway was necessary.

The need for that level of hyper-alertness is one of the ways post-traumatic stress disorder affects both Army combat veterans.

“Situational awareness is something you do not lose,” Paterson said. “Everywhere I go, it’s situational awareness of where the threat, where the attack is going to come from.”

Burket, a Cairnbrook native and now 70-year-old retiree living in Windber, described the feeling as still being on constant alert even a half-century after he last saw a battlefield.

“I tell people – and they don’t believe this – I say you can put me in a room with 50 people and you tell me there’s one Vietnam veteran in there and I’ll pick out which one it is,” Burket said. “They say, ‘How do you know?’ I say, ‘It’s the guy with his back to the wall.’ He can see everybody in that room and he’s probably closest to the door, knows how he can get out of there really quick.”

‘The monster inside’

Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the United States forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968 and Army Chief of Staff from 1968 to 1972, had just given an extemporaneous speech in downtown Johnstown.

His remarks were part of a daylong ceremony for Vietnam veterans – held in September 1986 – that brought an estimated crowd of more than 17,000 people into the central part of the city, according to an article in The Tribune-Democrat.

Burket, who wore his Army jacket to the gathering, watched a parade that included hundreds of veterans. But, despite cajoling from friends who saw him on the sidelines, he did not march.

Afterward, he and two buddies slipped into Johnnie’s Restaurant, then a popular establishment on Main Street.

As they stood, among the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, sipping their beers, a World War II veteran, who was sitting at the bar, spoke to them.

“He turned around and said to us, ‘What did you kids do? You dropped more bombs than we did in World War II and you lost.’ We just put our beers down and walked out,” Burket said. “What were you going to say?”

It was around that time – the mid-1980s – when Burket’s demons from Vietnam started to truly surface.

In the years since he had returned from a volunteer tour in May 1970, Burket was a self-described workaholic, sharing his life with his wife, raising a son, keeping up his house and always taking jobs where he could be by himself – milkman, dock worker, pipe cutter, stock-room staffer – as he tried to just slip back into society and put the war behind him.

But the anger would not fade away.

“I just couldn’t live with the monster inside of me that was eating me alive,” he said. “I hated everyone, everything, and most of all I hated myself.

“I just wanted to get a knife and cut myself wide open and get this monster and leave it out of me that I had bottled up for all these years. I told (my wife) over the years I felt like I was a Coke bottle and somebody was shaking me up and I said, ‘I just hope and pray to God that you aren’t around and my son isn’t around the day that I explode.’

“Well, I didn’t explode. I just completely, totally fell apart.”

Burket, who fought mostly around Pleiku in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, could not escape the why-did-I-live question that came along with returning home from Vietnam after seeing so many friends die in battle.

“Survival guilt was the biggest thing,” Burket said. “You really, really struggle with survival guilt. It’s like you shouldn’t be here. You know what I mean?

“You shouldn’t have made it through what happened and what went on. It wasn’t fair that those guys lost their lives and I didn’t. Why was I saved? Why was I spared?”

‘Turn into an animal’

Paterson was involved in a firefight on his first patrol in Iraq.

He still can sense the shockwave from a rocket explosion during another combat moment – the wind, the ringing in his ears, the white light.

Once, after being in battle and in a hyper-vigilant, life-or-death state for more than 48 straight hours, he fell asleep on a sidewalk, eventually waking up to Iraqi people staring at him and others going about their daily business.

“If I close my eyes, is there going to be somebody standing there when I wake up? That’s a lot to get over,” he said.

Many times, he had to hold men, women and children at gunpoint when clearing homes.

“That would wear on me after a little while, honestly,” he admitted.

And then there were the gruesome psychological tactics used by the enemy.

“The fighters were throwing heads, people’s heads, over the wall at us, trying to scare us, I’m assuming,” Paterson said. “That was just one thing – people throwing human heads. Finding bodies in places is nothing new. …

“If we’d go to a town, say we’d go into Johnstown and we go to the West End, if we know this person is going to give us information on the one block, well we can’t just go to his house and then nobody else’s. They’re going to know who we’re going to talk to. So we’d have to come up and stop at every single house along the way to get information. If they were found being informants, they would kill those people, or they would make them become suicide bombers. Or, if they didn’t become a suicide bomber, they would kill their whole family, or stuff like that. Or they would just cut their heads off and throw them over the wall.”

The gun battles, the explosions, pointing weapons at children and the mutilated bodies all became part of day-to-day life for Paterson, a 2000 Greater Johnstown High School graduate, who now, at 38, lives in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

He existed in survival mode.

“You turn into an animal,” he said. “That’s the best way to describe it. After taking contact and you start fighting, you turn into an animal – to where you do what you have to do to survive.

“After a while, that animal even breaks down. You’ve gone through so much. My deployment was 15 months. After 10 months, I’d had enough. It was day to day getting shot at. For me, I would challenge somebody.”

He stood with his arms out wide and continued: “If they want to try to shoot at me, well, then I’d stand up there like this on top of a rooftop saying ‘shoot at me’ because if you miss then it’s you. It’s just an animal. You have to turn into another completely different person. I think that’s the hardest part is to be able to turn that off. You can’t.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn that off.”

‘A call of desperation’

Burket said he considered committing suicide.

But, in his darkest hour, he picked up the telephone instead.

The decision saved – and changed – his life.

“I was one of those guys,” Burket said. “I was on the fence. I honestly believe that God intervened. I made a phone call. I called a guy that I knew was a Vietnam veteran. I wasn’t close with him, didn’t know him real good, but occasionally we met.

“It was like a call of desperation. I called him out of the clear blue sky. He didn’t even recognize my voice and he said to me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. I’ll be right down.’ ”

The individual convinced Burket to not take his own life.

And he suggested attending a veterans support group that was hosted by the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter at the Hiram G. Andrews Center.

There, together with other men who had been in the rice paddies and mountains, killed and been shot at, served their country and been rejected upon their return, Burket “unloaded 18 years of anger, frustration, disgrace, shame, fear.”

He called his wife, who had presented the ultimatum of getting help or watching her leave, and said he lost what felt like “150 pounds” of emotional weight.

“That was the turning point for me,” he explained.

Burket soon learned he was not alone as he shared his pain.

“They came up with things that happened to them over there that they thought they were the only ones who experienced,” said Tom Haberkorn, a longtime chapter member who helped organize the group. And it turns out that other people had – if not exactly the same – very similar experiences. Once you found out that you weren’t the only person in that position, it seemed to relieve a lot of tensions and problems that people were having.”

Burket still participates in local “rap groups” at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center’s Johnstown VA Clinic and also offers personal assistance to veterans dealing with PTSD.

“I feel so obligated to try to help another veteran that’s suffering from PTSD, because I know what it’s like,” Burket said. “I still have it. It won’t go away. But I can cope with it. I still have to go to counseling.

“But if there’s something I can do or something I can say to save somebody else’s life, that’s what it’s about. I’m a Christian. I know what it’s like to be on that edge. It’s scarier than hell. And, if you’re on that fence, you can fall either way. You’re looking for something to make it go away.

“You don’t realize it. “It’s just something plain and simple. It’s right in front of you. You’ve got to talk about it. You’ve got to get it out. You can’t let it fester and let it eat you alive.”

‘You’re not alone’

The animal is always lurking inside Paterson.

“You’re hiding that animal all the time from people, I guess, is the best way for me to describe it,” he said. “I’m sure people don’t want to hear that, but that’s what you become. It’s what you have to do to survive.”

It surfaces on occasion.

But Paterson has found ways to keep the angry beast at bay – talking through his issues in therapy, creating flow art paintings, volunteering at the Cambria County Veterans Memorial Museum, staying close to his home and being a bit of a self-described hermit.

He also shares his story with fellow veterans and other people, so they can learn the reality about PTSD.

“For me, I feel the stigma is that people are crazy violent, or they’re going to go murder everybody in town or something like that,” he said. “The furthest thing from PTSD is the stigma. When I came home and I was having issues, if you go see somebody, you’re looked at as being weak. In an alpha culture, you don’t show weakness. That’s when you get pounced on.”

Paterson also wants those he encounters to know “it’s OK to have PTSD.”

“You’re not alone,” Paterson said. “Why should there be a stigma to it? Why are people so afraid to get mental health care?

“It doesn’t make you a weaker person. Honestly, you’re probably smarter if you’re going to see a therapist than you are to try to do something on your own that you know you can’t do on your own. I just wish guys would reach out more instead of taking their lives. It affects everyone they’re around.”

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